Do all Native Americans look alike?

Can you determine which nation a Native American belongs to by sight alone?

I can’t.

Can you tell the difference between a Spaniard and a Greek by sight alone?

good point Robert.

No, are you crazy? Maybe you could guess lucky every great once in a while if you knew a lot of Native American people, but there are relatively few Native Americans who don’t have plenty of European or West African ancestors, and there are hundreds and hundreds of tribes.

Most of us have enough powers of observation to be able to roughly guess where someone’s ancestors came from. Certainly people native to Central America have fairly different looks across the board than the Inuit tribes of Alaska and northern Canada, or the plains tribes of North America.

But people can’t even reliably guess at the origins of Han Chinese people, who belong to the most populous ethnic group in the world. And no, they don’t all look alike either.

Of course. The Spanish man sleeps in the afternoon and the Greek is getting beaten senseless by Germans for wasting everyone’s money. It is pretty easy to tell the difference.

I don’t think it is a dumb question. Lots of small, isolated groups have fairly consistent visible traits that other people can recognize with practice. Even larger Asian countries show some of this. The problem with American Indians is that there aren’t many if any pure blood ones left and there has been a lot of mixture in the last few hundred years. You might be able to consistently tell the difference between a member of an Amazonian tribe and an Apache or differences between East and West Coast American Indians but it would be hard to break it down by tribe just because the genetic pool is so diluted at this point. The people in those tribes a few hundred years ago may have been able to tell fairly easily however although some tribes were big on capturing members from competing tribes so there was always some mixing going on.


Not often, but sometimes. I can place them within a region more often than I can name their tribe. NAs who come from the north-eastern area of the United States look markedly distinct from NAs who come from the southwest, for example.

The last paragraph is what made me think of this.

To some degree I can tell Alaskan Eskimo heritage (Yupik) from coastal (Tlingit, Haida) but I wouldn’t bet money on it.

The differences in physical appearance between many European ‘tribes’ and ethnic groups are just as distinct or even more so than those of Native American tribes. It would be a very silly question to ask if ‘all Europeans look alike’, wouldn’t it? You have to be naive to think it’s possible that you can know what specific ethnic group a whole continent’s worth of peoples came from just from their looks. Human appearance varies too much in this respect. You can make educated guesses, which are made much easier if a person is a genetically ‘pure’ member of a particularly homogeneous and easily identified tribe/ethnic group, which is pretty rare all told. For instance, a family from the Efe tribe of Zaire, taken out of their usual environment, would be unmistakable to a lot of people as ‘Pygmies’ due to their distinct and unusual physical appearance, but I doubt even the most dedicated scholars could tell just by looking at them if they were in fact members of the Efe as opposed to Aka or Mbuti, who are distinct groups and cultures but share many physical traits.

You have to be careful with this type of argument though just so people know exactly what you are saying. People that make the statement that they can tell a member of group or tribe X by sight don’t usually mean that 100% literally. They usually mean that they can compare a fairly pure member of group X with a fairly pure member of group Y and be reasonably confident in their conclusion.

The reverse argument is that you can’t assume anything about a person’s origins by physical appearance always sounds deceptive because people feel intuitively that it isn’t true and they are correct to some degree. You will sometimes see studies like “Identify the Chinese guy” which show you people with all kinds of mixed ancestry or unusual characteristics to show you how stereotypes don’t always work. That’s fine but I don’t think anyone ever thought such a thing to begin with. What people, even the dumbest and those most prone to stereotyping, are referring to is that there is a base set of traits that are visible to people familiar with those groups with a high degree (but not certain) of correlation.

That may or may not exist in Native American populations today or it may not be visible to people that aren’t very familiar with them but there could still be some traces. The human brain is wired to pick up on very subtle differences in people to identify outsiders and does it well even if we can’t describe it well.

Navaho men have pretty distinct body shapes. At least native Americans in the SW seem to be able to tell the difference at a glance between Navaho, Apache, Hopi, etc.

This is true. Groups of individuals from different ethnic groups can be told apart better than individuals. You could almost certainly tell a group of 20 Swedes from a group of 20 Italians, for example, although some individuals could fall into either group.

After many years in Panama, I think I can often tell a Kuna from an Embera (even aside from the costume) by facial characteristics (the Kuna have more elongated faces and aquiline noses, compared to the rounder-faced Embera); but many individuals can’t be easily distinguished.

I agree with what you’re saying - I just think people waaaaaay overestimate a]the distinctiveness and homogeneity of physical appearance of ‘pure’ members even of an unusually distinctive/homogeneous group, of which there are very few left in existence these days, and b] the powers of their observation.

But yes, if you are familiar with how people from a certain grouping tend to look, or dress or move or act, or the identifying characteristics of their very faint accent even when they have learned your language well, it’s possible to have quite a high percentage of correct guesses as to what country or region someone’s ancestors come from, and even what ethnic group they belong to.

Well, that’s all very true, but there is still a Japanese “look” that’s distinctive and different from the Han Chinese “look”.

people tend to construe cultural differences into physical differences.

You can’t always separate the two cleanly. Dietary differences can result in physical differences and body language is a physical display of culture as well among people that would look much more similar if they were raised in the same environment.

I’m not from the SW nor could I ever hope to identify a SWestern Native American by their tribe, but I have an image in my head of the stereotypical Navajo man being extremely broad-shoulder and barrel-chested, am I correct? I think there are even cartoons illustrating them as such.

However the Navajo have been a very well-photographed people for a long time (there are many lovely books solely of portraits, old and new) and with a quick google I don’t see any photos of barrel-chested men. Navajo people seem to differ a lot in their looks; many Navajo women in particular, I could easily identify as South-East Asians, while others look very much like the Lakota I grew up near.

People did not travel far in former days, and usually mated with someone within walking distance. So, many people in one area will share characteristics, because they share common ancestors. However, every now and then, random new genes shake up the mix.

Although it often shocks racists, the reality is that ethnic groups are rarely “pure-bred” in any sense. Unless they have been isolated from the world for a long time, in a forest or an island, every group has a hodge-podge of ancestors. They will include the genes of passing tourists, traders or invaders, and of captured slaves and bartered brides. There seems to be a human instinct to find people outside the group sexually attractive, and to share genes with them.

This means that you can often point to a characteristic that is common among a group of people. However, it is rare that the characteristic is unique to their group, and it will also be found in other groups, often unconnected with them. Also, some members of the group may not have the characteristic.

That is why the answer to the OP is No. And it does not matter whether you are discussing Native Americans or Europeans. If you pick at random twenty people born in Ireland and twenty born in France, I could probably distinguish them with a 70% accuracy. However, I would get a lot of them wrong because our respective gene pools are so mixed.

Of course, here’s one extreme example of cultural characteristics affecting physical characteristics among Native Americans: Artificial cranial deformation - Wikipedia

In fact, the nations of American natives were often quite diverse, with individual tribal groups bound together largely by loose political affiliations and an approximately common language, not dissimilar to the pre-Westphalian tribal groups that operated independently from the nominal “divinely” designated rulers assigned by the Holy Roman Emperor. They often had dissimilar cultural traditions, and the general nomadism of Native Americans allowed for substantial intermixing such that there was no such thing as “pure” Native American ethnic gene pools.